Friday, August 26, 2011

On a Wing and Prayer: Game 52 in Rochester

The worn metaphor of coming in on “a wing and prayer” has come to identify the frailty of hopes and faith for one’s deliverance from trying times, not simply to implore a safe landing after a troubled flight.  During my drive to the Rochester, that stale figure of speech—differently applied—characterized my goal and my spirit, probably because of Rochester’s name, the Red Wings, and because I thought that prayer might be the only way to get the pelting rain to subside and permit the game to proceed. 
While Arby rested back in Falls Church, Virginia, and while Bonnie used Toad to hop around the DC area, I drove a rental car for a week through portions of Pennsylvania and New York.  After singing in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, I headed north in steady rain the following morning.  Following I-81 through Binghamton, I briefly bemoaned the fact that I hadn’t been able to schedule their mini-Mets among the teams on my tour.  On toward Syracuse I pressed through increasingly driving rain, praying that my destination two hours west in Rochester might not be caught in the same storm system.  As hackneyed as the metaphor might be about coming in on “a wing and prayer,” it certainly seemed applicable to my destination and attitude.  
A baseball bouquet!
Shortly after my arrival at the ballpark in late afternoon, the skies above downtown Rochester began to clear, and I was welcomed into the administrative office’s reception area where I sat and worked on transcribing notes about recent ballgames.   There I saw a gesture that typified the graciousness of the Red Wings’ staff.  One of the senior administrators brought the receptionist a baseball bouquet. 
In keeping with the elegance of the flowers arrangement, the Rochester ballpark publicly, personally, and artistically ushers fans graciously into the game.  Outside the main entry to Frontier Field is a statue of Morrie Silver and inside the left field gate is a tribute to Joe Altobelli.  Silver is credited with having saved professional baseball for Rochester in 1957 when he spearheaded a drive to get more than eight thousand local investors to purchase the team and ballpark from the St. Louis Cardinals, who had owned both.  In recognition of his effort, the old ballpark, where the Red Wings played until their move to Frontier Field in 1997, had been named Silver Stadium in 1968.  Now his congenial likeness, positioned next to a baseball-uniform clad child representing future Red Wings’ followers, welcomes fans to Frontier Field.
Affable Joe Altobelli.

Inside the left field gate another statue salutes Rochester devotees to the ballpark. There a statue of Joe Altobelli stands as a reminder of the many ways to affiliate with and support the team.   After playing for the Red Wings in the mid 60s, he became the team’s manager in 1971, guiding Rochester to more than 500 wins (the most by any Red Wings’ manager in history) en route to championship seasons.  Following his successful leadership on the field, Altobelli shifted first to the office of General Manager before becoming the popular broadcaster of Red Wings’ games.
In addition to these graceful bronze figures, other artistic sculptures are exhibited along the concourse.  Inside the main gate two images of red-winged raptors oversee fans’ arrival, and an impressionistic, textural sculpture of a horse, whose medium is old baseball gloves, stands proudly at the heart of the entry.  That piece remains one of my two favorites of the tour.  While I was unable to find the name of the artist, the plaque at the base of “Horsehide” credited several season ticket holders for their contributions in making it possible to acquire and display the piece.
"Horsehide," the sculpture using the medium of old baseball gloves.
Not only do the elegant bronze statues and sculptures greet fans as they enter the ballpark.  The General Manager personalizes their greeting by taking the microphone behind home plate, alerting them to upcoming, and informing them about in-game attractions and concession specials like the “Wednesday Wings Night Special,” as well as the return of the Josh Whetzel Pretzel, which is named after their chief broadcaster.  The salty snack is an oversized treat intended to serve a family of four! 
Of all of the ballparks that I had encountered on my tour, the staff at Rochester is the most traditional and professional in appearance and demeanor.  Male staffers wore starched, long sleeve shirts with button-down collars, even in hot weather.  They looked crisp as they complemented their shirts with ties, frequently sporting artistic designs by the Jerry Garcia label; but they relaxed the formality of their appearance by rolling their shirt sleeves to the elbow.
Among other announcements, the GM anticipated the appearance and participation of Davey Johnson, who was scheduled to be at the ballpark and sign autographs on the following Sunday.  However, two days after my singing in Rochester, Johnson had to cancel his appearance because he was named the manager of the Washington Nationals after the sudden resignation of Jim Riggelman.  Rochester’s personal touch extended also to in game entertainment, which was provided by live organ music, only the second ballpark on my tour to include such a feature.
At various ballparks, I inquired about distinct anthem performances that the staff coordinator recalls during the season. Since I deliver an operatic rendition, I like to think that I surprise staff, players, and fans with my own performance, exceeding that of most during the season.  I was a delighted to hear from the Rochester staff that the team annually enjoys performances by Greg Kunde, a local “product” who is now an operatic performer of international renown.  Knowing of his appearances and inspired by the staff’s demeanor and support, I sang about as well and enthusiastically as possible, delivering one of my better renditions of the tour.  A distinct addition to the anthem performance was that two interpreters signed the anthem for hearing impaired fans in the audience.
As I entered the stands after singing, a fan in the front row hailed me in a way that I had not heard in other ballparks.  “Are you really from Whittier, California?" Kathleen Joyce Melrose asked.  "I grew up there and went to Cal Hi.”  Coincidentally, that is the high school where my two sons attended.  For a couple of innings, then, I sat with Kathleen and her husband to talk about Whittier, baseball, and the national anthem.  Kathleen said that when she finally writes her memoir, she’ll feature baseball, using the title Life of a Season Ticket Holder.  Among other reflections in it, she’ll propose several rule revisions to speed up games.  For instance, if a batter hits four foul balls, he’ll be out.  And since nine lives are enough for a cat’s longevity, she reasoned, so too nine innings should be enough for baseball: no extra innings. 
Trusting Kathleen’s recommendation for which concession to select—Rochester leads the Minor Leagues in desirable and healthy foods available—I headed for the Red Osier stand, where Dom the sandwich maker treated me to a Prime Roast Beef sandwich on a special Kimmelwick Roll, a Kaiser style bun with caraway seeds.  While I salivated and waited for the beef to be dipped, Tom Hober, a local high school coach, thanked me for the anthem’s clarity and brilliant tone. 

Dom, Lisa, and Shea beam about their superb prime beef sandwiches at Red Osier.
In addition to Rochester leading the leagues in its array of foods, it is also the first ballpark where I have encountered a nut free zone as well as an “allergen free” concession stand offering a range of “free” items:  peanut free, gluten free, dairy free, tree nut free.  Yet since I am allergic to sugar, I chuckled to myself that the menu did not list any “sugar free” products. 

The berm along the third-base line is allergen friendly--except for those hypersensitive to grass.

Blaze blazes his Red Wings ring.
As I was photographing the tributes to the inductees in the Rochester Hall of Fame and the art pieces near the main entry, Blaze Dinardo, chief of security, asked me if I were a professional photographer.  I was flattered.  When I told him about my project, he seemed fascinated and directed me to the tribute to Cal Ripken in the area behind the third base foul line. Later, he introduced me to one of the Red Wings’ board members, Priscilla Astifan, a local baseball historian who researches and writes about 19th century baseball in Rochester. 
An authority on the subject of Rochester’s early embrace of baseball, she has published five booklets about the early days of baseball in Rochester:  the first organized game in the city between two collegiate teams in 1858, its first professional game in 1877, and its initial competition in the International League in 1885.  In keeping with the public ownership of the team initiated by Morrie Silver several decades earlier, the board is comprised primarily of lawyers and business executives, as well as herself and the bishops of the Catholic diocese and the Episcopal area. 

Rochester's tribute to the rock of baseball.
When Priscilla learned that I am a theologian, she identified several parallels between baseball and religion, starting with the comparison of the umpire to God—in fact, reversing the basis of the comparison by indicating that God is like the umpire: you have to be ready when “The Great Umpire calls you home.”
The fans at the ballpark enthusiastically expressed their support of the team and their love for the game.  While fans at many ballparks loudly challenge ball and strike calls by the home plate umpire, few have chattered throughout the game like a bench jockey.  In that spirit Red Wings’ fans playfully harassed the Knight’s players with ongoing jeers:  “Pitcher’s got a rubber arm.  Swing batter.  New ball.  You’re out.” 
Their expressiveness also extended to their cheering for other fans.  When a kid got his glove on a foul ball, only to watch it glance away to a man who picked it up, the crowd booed until the man offered the ball to the kid.  But the kid, knowing that he had missed his real chance to catch a game ball, refused the offer, showing the highest of baseball Integrity: It’s not the ball itself that matters; it’s the act of catching it or making the play.  Minutes later when another kid caught a foul ball on a rebound off the fa├žade, fans applauded more loudly than at any point in the evening, even more than when Joe Nathan, the former All-Star closer for the Twins, pitched an inning on his rehab assignment, or when the Red Wings scored runs in their 8-7 loss to the Charlotte Knights.


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